Monday, February 09, 2009

Approaching Elections 3

Rockets continued to fall on Israel. Two more fell on Monday, destroying cars in a kibbutz parking lot at seven in the morning. Israel responded by bombing two Hamas outposts.

The elections are getting closer. 34 parties are registered for the election, set for Tuesday, to choose the 120 Knesset members. Whichever party gains the most votes will be asked to put together a coalition of at least 61 seats. Parties range from the large established movements to the small quirky ones, like those running on a legalization of Marijuana ticket, anti-Mafia, or even anti-banks.

Inclement weather is expected to cut down the numbers showing up to vote. This winter has been unseasonably dry, with only occasional heavy rains. One of the winter storms is expected election day.

The elections are not expected to get a large turn out, even ignoring the weather as a factor. Most people are indifferent to the choice of who wins since, as far as analysts can see, none of the choices is preferred. Two of the three front-runners, Barak and Netanyahu, have both been Prime Minister in the past. Their records were nothing that warranted having them back for another try. Livni is viewed as weak. Only Avigdor Leiberman of the Yisrael Beitenu party, is viewed as strong, but his views are too radical for the mainstream.

Political analysts say that the Likud is increasingly concerned that a low turnout will not be in their favor. Likud activists have been interviewed on radio and TV expressing their concern that Likud may barely come out ahead of the Kadima party, which was formed by Ariel Sharon as a break-away party when he left the Likud. Sharon appointed Olmert as his Deputy Prime Minister. Olmert took over after Sharon’s debilitating stroke, and then went on to win the last election. Sharon has been in a coma for nearly two years.

Most of the people in the street say they haven’t made up their minds who they are voting for. One man, interviewed on Army Radio, said he was going to vote for Avigdor Leiberman’s Yisrael Beitenu party, but changed his mind. “I don’t think Leiberman is ready to handle the power that comes from a big victory.”

Leiberman’s party is expected to garner about 16 Knesset seats, while Likud, lead by former Prime Minister Benjamin ‘Bibi’ Netanyahu is expected to get about 25 seats, with Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni’s Kadima party running just behind Likud, if not even with that party.

Those who are undecided have trouble, they say, voting for Netanyahu. “He’s a crook,” said one. “He’s slimy,” said another. Many have trouble voting for Labor, headed by present Defense Minister Ehud Barak. Surveys estimate that Labor will get a maximum of fourteen seats. However, all parties expect that Ehud Barak will be asked to step into the next government as the Minister of Defense, even if Labor doesn’t enter into a coalition.

Ehud Barak said today that he would not take the Defense Ministry position if the Labor Party doesn’t win at least 20 Knesset seats. This announcement was meant to encourage people to vote for Labor, not assume that Barak would take the Defense portfolio no matter what. Some have said that Barak won’t go into the government unless the Labor Party is a coalition partner.

The problem with that scenario, say pundits, is that Labor has sworn not to sit in a government with Avigdor Leiberman. Tzipi Livni has not ruled out a coaltion between Kadima and Leiberman’s right-wing Yisrael Beitenu party. The Likud is counting on Leiberman and other right-wing parties to form a coalition. The last time Livni had a chance to form a coalition was when Ehud Olmert announced he was stepping down as Prime Minister and called for new elections. Livni as second on the Kadima list was allowed to form a new coalition but failed, leading to the call for new elections.

The larger parties, like the Likud, and Labor, are concerned that voters will chose the smaller parties that suit their fancy knowing that in the long run the larger parties will call them into the coalition. The Likud worries that this dilution of their votes may result in Livni’s Kadima party gathering more votes and thus forming the coalition.

The ultra-Orthodox Sephardi Shas party is also worried that they’ll lose votes, but to Leiberman. Shas mentor Rabbi Ovadia Yosef has said that a vote for Avigdor Leiberman is a vote for the ‘devil.’

One of the stickier points is the ceasefire negotiations with Hamas. Egypt has been busy trying to broker a deal, sending emissaries around the world to work out the details. Reportedly a deal can be made within days, assuming Israel releases a large number of Hamas prisoners, some say up to 1,000, held by Israel, including four with ‘blood on their hands.’ Egyptian President Husnei Mubarak said today that the official ceasefire agreement could be signed by next week.

Hamas is also demanding an opening of all borders into and out of Gaza. These borders have been closed for two years since Hamas took over from the PA. This was a joint Israel, USA, EU strategy to get Hamas to temper it’s call for the destruction of Israel. So far Hamas has yet to alter its belligerent tone and actions. Israel claims the border crossings were used to smuggle in weapons and ammunition.

Israel is holding out for an exchange that includes the captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who was kidnapped by Hamas over two years ago. Shalit has not been allowed a visit by the Red Cross, or any other outside party. This is in contravention of all international laws.

One interesting sidelight is that should the Egyptians reach some agreement that both Hamas and Israel agree upon, and the agreement needs to be signed speedily, it will be Ehud Olmert, the outgoing Prime Minister, who will negotiate the final agreement and sign in Israel’s name. Pundits say that it may take as many as six weeks for the party that receives the most votes to set up a coalition.
The big blocs are expected to split to a left-center group lead by Kadima and a right-wing group lead by the Likud. The procedure is that after the official election results are in, the President of Israel, Shimon Peres, will call in whoever it appears has the necessary 61 seats to form a coalition. At the earliest this isn’t expected until at least Thursday of next week. That party will then have to get involved in the give and take, which party gets which cabinet seats, and the concomitant budgets, and patronage jobs.

When no one else can form a government, the President must take over and run the country for four years. Pundits say this is not something the 83-year old Peres would want to do.